Friday, January 21st, 2022

Yola – Dancing Away in Tears

It’s our favourite country-soul-funk-pop-disco-rock artist of them all, or so our sidebar will say.


[Video]
[8.00]

Al Varela: One of the many shining diamonds on Stand For Myself. It’s incredible to hear a song that strikes the perfect balance of sadness and happiness all at once, but the careful tempo, soft keys, and horns that never overstep their boundaries get there. There’s something magical about hearing the production all come together over Yola’s mesmerizing voice, spinning into a blur of jazz and blues that truly feels like you’re dancing your sadness away. It doesn’t get too showy, but it never runs out of that hidden euphoria underneath. Pure delight.
[9]

Ian Mathers: The kind of song that makes being sad feel somehow luxurious, that makes wallowing in it seem like an appealing way to spend and evening and not just a drain. If only all our heartbreak could be so lushly appointed.
[8]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Blue break-up made blissful through soft disco. 
[7]

Edward Okulicz: The sound of this is just unbeatable, a touch of 70s soul-pop, a sprinkle of disco dust, and definitely some late 70s/early 80s soft rock lighting. I’m talking “Kiss You All Over” if it was a break-up song; that slick, that sumptuous. Maybe the verses are a little underwritten, like they needed more weight and more words, but the chorus carries the weight, because it’s perfect. Yola’s tears melt into a huge sigh by the song’s end and inappropriately I’m left with nothing but a huge smile on my face.
[9]

Juana Giaimo: This has a pleasing melody with the most beautiful orchestration and a warm retro beat. I can’t complain but everything flows so peacefully that I’m also finding it hard to find the emotion of the lyrics in the music. 
[6]

Will Adams: Heartbreak never sounded so luxurious.
[8]

Dorian Sinclair: Yola’s greatest strength — and she has many, many strengths — is her knack (with writing partners Dan Auerbach and, in this instance, Natalie Hemby) for creating songs that feel absolutely timeless. There are a lot of things I can praise about “Dancing Away in Tears”; the way Yola floats the high notes on the chorus, the heartbreak she carries throughout, the way the horns and synth play off each other to shape the entire song. But what it comes down to is a songwriter at the absolute top of her game, putting together something that is unquestionably hers but still feels like you’ve always known it. It’s a trick she is so consistently capable of that it should no longer surprise me, but somehow, in the best way, it always does.
[9]

Friday, January 21st, 2022

Grimes – Player of Games

I wonder why… he’s the greatest gamer…


[Video]
[5.38]

Leah Isobel: On a sonic level, this is a perfectly fine “Violence” retread, and Grimes is as good an ambassador as any for the trance-pop revival. I imagine the lyrical approach is meant to unify Elon Musk’s treatment of Grimes and his publicfacing behavior into something like a thesis: this man approaches life as if it’s a video game and he’s the only real person. But cooing that he’s “the greatest gamer” makes him sound like an esports pro instead of a diamond heir who violates labor laws on a regular basis; there’s nothing grounding this narrative. In order to justify her own choices, Grimes has to abstract the imagined nobility of this relationship away from its reality. It’s The Great, Lost Love as an aesthetic instead of a lived experience; call it flesh without blood.
[3]

Crystal Leww: So many things are annoying about Grimes, but one of the most annoying to me is how so much of her music sounds like an unfinished demo or unmastered version of a much more interesting song. “Player of Games” evokes images of cat-and-mouse games, of physical battle as metaphor for power struggles between two people endlessly fascinated by each other but pitted against each other by the unknown powers above us or whatever. But the drums don’t quite hit hard enough and Grimes always had a voice that couldn’t quite carry the umph required for these kinds of dramatics. 
[4]

Katie Gill: The worst thing this song does is that it’s undoubtedly going to inflate the ego of Elon Musk, an egomaniac whose current project is basically a subway system, but worse and who deserves to be relentlessly bullied, not have an entirely forgettable dance song written about his break-up with Grimes. The best thing this song does is that apparently it’s on the soundtrack for the video game Rocket League which I find absolutely delightful. Honestly, if you swapped out the tedious “I am sad about my break-up with my blood money husband” lyrics to “look! these cars are playing soccer!”, that would instantly jump the song right up to a [7] in my book.
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: I would like to think I have a Line. I would like to think that a song written about Elon Musk featuring lyrics like “I’m in love with the greatest gamer” would be well on the nope side of it. But sadly, all my principles crumble before sounds like this. This could 100% have been a cut from a compilation called, like, “Ethereal Angelic Realms 7,” slotted alongside Audrey Gallagher and Tiff Lacey and Amelia Brightman, uploaded in full to YouTube in 2009 with a DeviantArt slideshow of an Evony model. (Amusingly, this was co-produced with the Weeknd collaborator who didn’t make trip-hop in the ’90s.) When I was 16 I would totally have listened to this and envisioned myself as an avenging angel of wistful heartbreak, these songs’ truest use case. Even now at age [REDACTED], if I can sever the context, I can do the same. It helps that “playing games” works better as a metaphor when it’s about getting generically played, rather than breaking up with a specific clown. The video also helps; all trance songs should have weapon clangs and lightsaber whooshes timed to the chorus, to give your imagination its wind machine and sword.
[9]

Ian Mathers: Who do you think will actually take Grimes in a sword fight first, communists, the animated corpse of Iain M. Banks, or fans of Art Angels pissed at how bad the vocals/vocal effects have gotten?
[3]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: If I fell into a coma right after the release of Visions and woke up a decade later with no conception of the broader pop cultural context in which “Player of Games” exists I would probably think this was pretty sick. Unfortunately, I’ve had to live out the past decade in ways that dim my enthusiasm for this — but at its best (specifically the drum programming on the chorus) the sheer fun that Grimes is having here is enough to catch a glimpse of a better world in which I don’t have to know about the backstory to this.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: I like this a lot more when I don’t rip into its context. That context weighs a million tons, the video is like being stabbed with a sword with the message scrawled on it in felt tip pen and ultimately I don’t think Grimes is that sympathetic a person, even after being cut off.  But this is a decent slice of emotionally weighty trance, a bit gothy, and a bit mysterious. These are all good things and you don’t need to think about Elon Musk, and it’s better as a listener and a critic if you don’t dissect the story. Might hit harder if Grimes had the voice to match her chops and her aims.
[7]

Will Adams: Yes, this is a song in which Grimes describes Elon Musk as “the greatest gamer” who sadly “loves the game more than he loves me.” Counterpoint: It’s trance, specifically the type of mid-’00s trance that’s bracing, dramatic and fantastical. “Games” becomes the perfect metaphor in this setting; it sounds like standing in a blizzard, hand ready to draw your sword.
[7]

Thursday, January 20th, 2022

Zzoilo, Aitana – Mon Amour Remix

Two Spanish singers test our tolerance for tempo…


[Video]
[5.57]

Rodrigo Pasta: Aitana does deserve a gigantic worldwide hit… if only it could be one produced by Andrés Torres and Mauricio Rengifo (“Despacito”, TINI, Sebastian Yatra, Carlos Vives, Anitta), the Latin pop gods who took her in a truly solid pop rock direction on her 2020 album, 11 RAZONES. This, on the other hand, is a dull attempt at TikTok virality with swooshing sounds that attempt nothing because they’re meant to evoke nothing but the vaguest feeling of “vibes.” This will soundtrack many 5-minute baking recipes tutorials.
[4]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Shimmers and shimmies with all the romance and elegance of an episode of Emily in Paris.
[3]

Scott Mildenhall: Simple but effective: the woozy throb adds a frisson to Zzoilo and Aitana’s easy interplay. It perhaps doesn’t get any easier than simply singing over the top of each other, but between his ebullient volume and her more characterful smile, it makes sense. The words trip out of them in something like the enjambment of new love.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: Like an attempt to speedrun charm. The tempo tricks you into thinking this is more catchy than it perhaps is.
[6]

Alfred Soto: In its dervish-like rhythm “Mon Amour” suggests Savage Garden’s “I Want You” with almost the same verbal charm.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: Zzoilo has a flatter affect than Aitana’s fluttery higher register voice, but they blend almost startlingly well together and often slam right through the verses and chorus so quickly you can’t even tell them apart. The horns stop them short and halt their advance over the threadbare synths, bass and stumbling drums, but you’re moving so fast you can’t even be mad.
[8]

Will Adams: The polite beat brings to mind Disney dancepop remixes, so a lot of the heavy lifting is done already before Zzoliio and Aitana’s playful back-and-forth take hold. In a slightly different universe, this is an Al Walser song; I’ll take the little victory that this is not the case.
[6]

Thursday, January 20th, 2022

Walker Hayes – AA

Aggressively Average? Adulting Again? Applebee’s Ad?


[Video]
[3.57]

Edward Okulicz: An admirable attempt to redo “Fancy Like,” but with the doofy restaurant name-dropping replaced with garbage. And it’s not catchy — it needs an actual beat that does something, rather than trying to go down the middle between the genres he wants to be in. There’s also something so unforgivably noxious about people who say their spouse married down so smugly, having as it does the subtext that they did so because they’re so awesome. So instead of a silly but endlessly memeable chorus, we have a chorus that starts with Shit Dad Energy and moves through Humblebrag Gone Wrong. Because I’m already poisoned, I assumed “AA” referred to Hayes trying to stay out of Adult Alternative. He’s on his way there, and no amount of charch may save him.
[3]

Al Varela: Walker Hayes has found his niche appealing to suburban middle-class white people in the South who have enough to get by but not enough to vacation in Hawaii every year. This can be done right, but Hayes always picks these ugly guitar tones that sound like they’re out to annoy you. He also has this smug, self-satisfied attitude that makes him seem cockier than he really is. Hayes can self-deprecate all he wants, but there’s still something irritating about the way he brags that his wife is out of his league. What are you trying to prove, and to who? Maybe we should have given the viral hit to Brett Eldredge instead.
[4]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: A thoughtful and vulnerable confessional adulterated by flashes of toxic masculinity. 
[5]

Katherine St Asaph: A slab of regressive values (“just trying to keep my daughters off the pole,” etc.) that half the country thinks are just duhs, good-ol-boy jaunt millions of people think is charm, “hey!” interjections they might have heard in a Nelly song, and a singsong hook that would be thoroughly annoying if Walker, Shane McAnally and Luke Laird didn’t play it restrained for some reason. (It’s certainly not their signature sound, since none of them have one.) The result is inessential, not remotely for me, yet not as obnoxious as “Fancy Like” — progress! Oh wait, there’s one more thing: a publicity stunt quasi-remix that turns the Nick Saban reference into Kirby Smart and may or may not be the test-run for a bunch of LMFAO-style “I’m in [Wherever] Bitch” regional remixes, or at least one for whoever wins the Super Bowl. Is that a point extra or a point off?
[5]

John Pinto: In the great tradition of self-pitying Southern men battling substance abuse, “My eyes are full of yellow bricks/Tiny dry horses are running in my veins” this is not. That’s by design, as Walker Hayes makes it clear over and over that he’s just trying to get by here, to keep his family together and “to do the dang thing,” and there is indeed nobility in that. After a listen or two, however, I moseyed over to another song with slammed mids and a 12-step referencing title, and I didn’t go back.
[4]

Katie Gill: Walker Hayes still can’t sing. Walker Hayes still can’t write a song. And “AA” still has the obnoxious problem “Fancy Like” had, where it seems like he released a song that’s three minutes of cosplaying poor-to-middle-class America by shoehorning references to things that wide swaths of country music radio listeners would recognize. “Oh! I know that! I too eat at Wendy’s and like Nick Saban, the most basic bitch choice in SEC football! Walker Hayes GETS ME.” No, he really doesn’t get any of this. It’s all a grift–hopefully country radio won’t fall for this one.
[2]

Nortey Dowuona: The Mode Reviews, in the Before Times, said that “Old Town Road” was not a country song and that the whole controversy stirred up over it was nonsense. In this song’s case, one of these things is still true: it’s clearly a country song, but the controversy over Walker Hayes isn’t nonsense. “AA” is middling country spiced up with 808s to force people who otherwise would never engage with this type of music of their own volition to call it an atrocity and draw more attention to a desperate hack trying to get rich. If Walker Hayes was a Donald Glover, it would at least make sense that “AA” was amateur and clumsy and too high on its own supply. But this guy is a country lifer who already made his debut back in the Before Times. Why is he making such a clumsy, halfhearted attempt to make acceptable country to country haters? Stand in that basic country bag and use better guitars next time.
[2]

Wednesday, January 19th, 2022

Emmy Meli – I Am Woman

Somewhere, Chaka Khan weeps.


[Video]
[3.29]

Leah Isobel: Hear my kitchæn.
[3]

Andy Hutchins: I would like to challenge the Tik Tok tweens and teens to turn Meredith Brooks’s far superior “Bitch” or Des’ree’s immortal “You Gotta Be” — songs that, sure, may not have been explicitly made for the purpose of female empowerment, but were also, crucially, not just mantras set to music even though “You Gotta Be” came from that exact same well, and thus had space for craft, narrative, and parallelism, but no time for some of the most grating bars of singing ever committed to record — into viral sensations on the level of “I Am Woman,” but they, much like the 1999-born Emmy Meli, probably do not have any significant memory of those songs. And the kids these days would probably complain that those songs don’t graft perfectly onto transition videos — but it’s not like they know much about music videos! Woman, womyn, femme, or so forth you may be, and I’m all for you being who you are — but you also gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta gotta get off my lawn.
[3]

Will Adams: Two points for the “gotitgotitgotitgotitgotitgotitgotitgotitgotitgotitgotit” part for making me laugh, I guess.
[2]

Alfred Soto: Billie Eilish + Helen Reddy hand-me-down + TikTok ethos = I Am Defeated.
[1]

Andrew Karpan: Evoking the back-to-the-earthiness of late ’00s indie pop (the granola rock of the Dirty Projectors, the throat-centric choruses that tUnE-yArDs did so much with, etc.) Meli manages to do something her free-spirited predecessors never could, which is to write a pop song.
[7]

Al Varela: I think this song needed more time to be workshopped. In the age of TikTok making demos huge, it encourages artists to rush their songs so they can get it in time for a streaming release, and sometimes the song itself suffers for it. In this case, an otherwise solid melodic foundation and a really good performance by Emmy Meli lack the crescendo and scope to make this feel more anthemic than it is. It sticks to this stunted middle ground where it’s supposed to go bigger, but the production never dares itself to go further. The guitars don’t kick it into high gear, the tempo never changes. As a result, the song feels kind of abortive, lacking in that big shining moment to make the song worth it. There’s enough good that I’m willing to call it decent, and I do side-eye anyone who gets particularly mad at the otherwise harmless women empowerment lyrics, but I’m not rushing to defend it either.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: This song turned me into a misogynist.
[1]

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

Joel Corry ft. Mabel – I Wish

Not among Mabel’s wishes: a butt in Iraq


[Video]
[4.89]

Crystal Leww: Joel Corry makes perfectly serviceable piano piano-house, and “I Wish” is the latest in a long string of more of the same. Can’t complain — if it’s a UK #1 then it’ll set a dancefloor off and if it’s not, then it’s a fun transition track in a Jax Jones set. At least he started crediting his vocalists, but I guess Mabel is also loads more famous than Hayley May. 
[5]

Andrew Karpan: Mabel’s crowning accomplishment in her career as a singer in search of an idea, this song manages to improve on what both c-listers bring to the table. For one, appearing as the face of an anonymous, yet aggressive house record is a remarkable improvement on Mabel’s run of low-budget, month-late Dua Lipa impersonations. Given a nice eurodance beat to chew on, her dance workout routine becomes curiously memorable. 
[7]

Kayla Beardslee: For an anonymous dance single, this is surprisingly wistful; the earnest melodies make more sense once you notice Jess Glynne’s name in the credits. But I like sincerity in pop songs, even (especially?) when it’s added to places where it has no business being, so this track clears the “mildly enjoyable” bar for me.
[6]

Dorian Sinclair: “I wish I could hear you say my name” is just interesting enough an opening line to spark attention, so it’s surprising just how anonymous the rest of “I Wish” feels. It ends up being not much more than a chain of extremely well-worn clichés; at a guess, I’d say over half the lyrics are ones I’ve seen verbatim in other songs. All that could be fine if the song were interesting musically — but while every element is basically pleasant, none are surprising in the least. Corry has all the basics where they should be, but seems to have forgotten to put in anything actually new.
[4]

Samson Savill de Jong: This is probably the best version of this song that it could possibly be, but this kind of music is just so bereft of ideas that I can’t get into it. This would’ve sounded like a cliched rip off in 2011 — to the point that I genuinely googled if it sampled something since it sounded like I’d heard it before — never mind 2022.
[4]

Nortey Dowuona: Mabel has a stringy, yet bouncy voice that is effortless to listen when it squeezes into whatever ant farm tunnels built by the beat maker and being teased by the producer and engineers to get to the last hole and back to the queen. In each of the pulsing piano chords and synth pads, Mabel has to roadrunner across them to keep the song looking like it’s going to make your feet move even though it just makes you wait for the drop and wince at each poorly layered whistle. I wish this actually felt like a Joel Corry song rather than a Mabel solo single she knew wasn’t good enough for her next album or EP.
[6]

Alfred Soto: On first listen the wistful ambitions of the lyrics and the willful anonymity of the backing dance track complete an uneasy two-step; on second listen it’s rare I raise such a worry. 
[6]

Andy Hutchins: The medium of house music for a I-don’t-wanna-break-up song is perfectly defensible: I can think of a couple of recent tunes more or less in that vein that I genuinely like. Cramming every possible house concept into every inch of sonic space and never, ever letting a few seconds pass without vocals on top of that makes “I Wish” relentless, though — and the last fucking thing a song about someone clinging to a dying love should be is “relentless.” Leave that to the people who have figured out how to leave, or at least wink about it all.
[3]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Deeply personal, meet completely anonymous. 
[3]

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

Carolina Gaitán, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Diane Guerrero, Stephanie Beatriz & Encanto Cast – We Don’t Talk About Bruno

That’s what we like…?


[Video]
[6.27]

Dorian Sinclair: So I’ve done my time as a hardcore musical theatre fan, and in a musical theatre context “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” works very well — it’s got momentum, it packs in a ton of exposition very efficiently, and it does a good job of musically characterizing each of the singers who participate. The things that make a good musical theatre number, though, often don’t translate very well to a single: when removed from its context, “Bruno” is confusing, filled with seeming non-sequiturs and disparate musical styles. Considered as a song on its own, it fails for all the same reasons it succeeds within Encanto.
[4]

Jessica Doyle: I’m a little surprised this has become the breakout song, partly because it didn’t impress me as much as “Surface Pressure” did and partly because it’s mostly plot, and plot is not Encanto‘s strong point. (It’s as if “Non-Stop” became the song everyone knew from Hamilton, and Encanto doesn’t have Hamilton‘s history crutch, so for a lot of people “Married in a hurricane” makes much less acontextual sense than “I was chosen for the Constitutional Convention!”) Then again, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is 95 percent the secondary characters, and the secondary characters are far and away Encanto‘s strong point; I’m resisting the temptation to turn this blurb into 2,000 words of speculation about Madrigal family dynamics involving Pepa. So I’m not displeased, but do see the movie. Or at least (if you don’t mind spoilers) this.
[6]

Alex Clifton: My favourite bit in all of Hamilton comes at the end of Act I, during “Non-Stop.” After the longest number in the musical, everyone chimes in singing their themes that have been established during the first act. It makes me tear up every time because the melodies fit so well together, like watching a puzzle come together with its last few pieces. Miranda excels at this kind of polyphony and “Bruno” is no exception — once everyone begins singing their own pieces, I can’t help but sit back in awe. I don’t think modern pop music has enough contrapuntal stuff (bring back the ’90s boy-band chorus!!! It happened all the time there) so it’s really lovely to hear it here. 
[8]

Katie Gill: Look, if any song was gonna get popular from Encanto, it’s this one. It’s easily the best song out of the film — which isn’t saying much because the rest of the songs range from “absolutely forgettable” to “Lin Manuel Miranda at his absolute worst.” (Hot take: “Surface Pressure” sucks.) That’s probably the reason why it went viral in the first place: theater kids have been starved of new media for a while and will happily launch onto the first halfway decent offering, ready to run it into the ground at the slightest provocation. But if we’re talking about oddities and novelties on the Billboard charts, this is more “sea shanties” than “Let It Go” or “Gangnam Style.” It’s fun! It’s cute! Nobody’s gonna be talking about it in a month.
[6]

Andy Hutchins: Does it work as a song? Sure. Does it work well outside the context of Encanto, which I have not seen but which seems to have a plot I could largely grasp from a trailer and the little writing about it I’ve encountered? Not quite. Unmoored from any understanding of who Bruno is — other than someone both in everyone’s fears and on everyone’s lips — I find the story being told here is recognizable in its rough shape (he’s a witch!) but inscrutable when it comes to detail (why is someone happy about a witch’s curse?). “Let It Go” or “My Shot” this is not, though that sort of universality is not what this is aimed at in the first place. But the melody’s spine is straight enough for salsa and cha cha — like Marc Anthony’s “I Need to Know,” with which “Bruno” shares more than a bit of DNA — and it is a fertile enough soil that a whisper-rap verse that sounds like Cardi B channeling the Ying Yang Twins and a couple of two-speaker verses can all coexist in this flower bed. It’s hard to listen to this for a first or fifth time and be bored, and a 25th time for a parent probably still features a dramatic cameo for “It was our WEDDING DAY” or “You telling this story or am I?” that the kiddos will adore during car trips. Even if the EGOT pursuer behind it all does not always sock dingers, churning unexpected singles will keep a batting average incredibly high.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: “I’m sorry, my fellow writers, go on.”
[6]

Crystal Leww: In a different context, someone recently described Hamilton (and by extension, Lin Manuel Miranda) as being “obviously talented but somehow perpetually cloying and kitschy.” “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is technically super impressive, with ten parts that needed to come together in a four minute song that is also telling a story. But unfortunately, it is also super annoying
[3]

Alfred Soto: It doesn’t irritate me like many Miranda compositions, nor does it scatter saccharine like fertilizer. The ersatz “Latin” rhythm provide momentum. A bit of alright.
[6]

Rodrigo Pasta: Highly interesting that this became the viral smash off of Encanto, considering that, were this a Broadway musical, its ensemble nature would fit it better as the closing of Act I. Partially, it might be the defect of other songs in the movie: lately, the musical numbers for the Disney protagonists — in this case, Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz — tend to be the least interesting and most formulaic of the bunch. In the case of Encanto in particular, Lin-Manuel Miranda seemed much more eager to give stronger, more complex compositions to side characters, a good thing since there are many of them (“What Else Can I Do” and especially “Surface Pressure” clearly surpass Mirabel’s leading tunes). But “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is different: a villain song, sung not by the villain, that very clearly portrays a wrong depiction of him, until we realize we’re not dealing with a villain at all. The song in that sense is a slow crescendo that passes the accuracy of Bruno’s story from the closest generation to the furthest one, and each person depicts him wrong in the best ways possible. From Pepa’s ruined wedding day (aided by her wonderful husband, great back-and-forth of behalf of Mauro Castillo) to Camilo’s exaggerated depiction, as the rhythm suddenly becomes incredibly lethargic — “rrrats along his back” and the percussion rattles along like a monster — to the paranoid citizens that misread everything. The finest moment by far is the seemingly angelic prophecy of Isabela, with delicate strings that never fully enter, as if the song knew it was all too pristine. It’s matched with the dreadful prophecy of Dolores, which clashes horribly with her cousin’s (a little “Helpless”/”Satisfied” situation here), and is beautifully sung and accompanied by music that now can’t stay behind. Once that occurs, the walls finally seem to close in with a brief section that denotes fleeting urgency as the rest of the day goes on. Lin-Manuel’s technique of piling storylines up still doesn’t fail him! What does fail him is the poor production in the final section, which, since it wants to pile up all melodic lines together, hides them all and nothing resurfaces at the right moment; we could use Alex Lacamoire around. An oddity for a Disney hit, but if we’re still rightfully establishing Lin-Manuel Miranda as one of the finest musical compositions of the century, it only makes sense the rarities are what stand tall for the listeners.
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: Lacking the seething hatred for Disney that seems mandatory for writers in 2022, I quite liked this. Inevitably for an ensemble song, it suffers a bit from being severed from its video ensemble — it makes sense it was buoyed by TikTok, land of karaoke, fandom and other extramusical narratives. I can’t hear Dolores’s bridge without missing the crisp footsteps. Like all of Miranda’s work, the construction is ingenious in a studied way — the whole thing builds up to a “Tonight“/”One Day More” finale of simultaneous omnicounterpoint. Like so much of modern musical theater, the vocals get thinner and thinner; whatever Isabela does is hardly singing. But in terms of doing its job — making me want to actually see Encanto — it did its job better than any Disney-to-chart escapee in recent memory.
[7]

Lauren Gilbert: Judging by the number of times I’ve woken up this week with my brain going “bruno-no-no-no,” LMM did his job here.
[8]

Monday, January 17th, 2022

Fireboy DML & Ed Sheeran – Peru

A third continent, maybe…


[Video]
[5.88]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: I’m sorry to inform you that “Ed Sheeran Releases Afrobeats Single” is no longer just a hypothetical Onion headline. I’m also sorry to inform you that the parts of this song where he is absent are actually really good and catchy.  
[4]

Crystal Leww: I tweeted something flippant about Ed Sheeran’s foray into non-Western pop scenes the other day and was gently given some context by some mutuals, including Micha, who pointed out that Ed Sheeran’s always been a music omnivore, someone who seemingly has a genuine interest in non-white dude music. And that makes sense; while he might look a little dorky in the music video for “Peru” as the redhead getting down at the party, he’s a seamless duet partner for Fireboy DML on the track itself. “Peru” is a song that feels like it’s barely there, but it’s got a repeatable hook that’ll stick. Peru para — Fireboy DML whispers like a dancefloor companion that’s gotten close throughout the night, shy at first, slowly finding their groove as the drums have boomed all night.
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: The soft, thinly spread shower curtains behind the scattered and tiptoeing drums are only able to hold Fireboy’s light, thin voice because he doesn’t try to strain or wail, he just whimpers and whines. Ed, however, does have a bright yet raspy voice that is capable of carrying weight, yet incapable of touching any kind of delicate arrangement without bouncing off it (“Take Me Back To London”) or breaking it (“Own It”). Yet here, he floats, just heavy enough to define his own voice but light enough to build upon this kind of light, delicate arrangement, and his echoes buoy his voice at the right place to keep the song ticking along. This is how you collaborate with a big name, by using them to support, not steal the song (Justin Bieber) or waste the song (Drake).
[7]

Andy Hutchins: The original “Peru,” a stunning, delicate Afrobeat-meets-dancehall track that Fireboy DML skims with graceful effortlessness, is a [10] — so it is fair to assess the ginger moppet who spent 2021 cosplaying as a vampire or whatever (I am not fact-checking my feelings, sorry) as being here for the purposes of making it a global megahit because he’s well-known, not because he can improve the song in any meaningful way. To his credit, he does not fuck it up, though his cameo is far too long (half as long as the three-verse original song!) and no one has ever needed to hear Ed Sheeran say “slow wine” even if his patois is fine; probably, that’s a credit to the groove that producer Shizzi finds, snares as crisp as winter winds cracking an expanse of icy synths. It’s a complication of the simpler stuff that DJ Mustard ran rap and R&B production with for about three full years — and Mustard never made something this crystalline and perfect.
[7]

Alfred Soto: Bob Dylan had “Mozambique,” about which he knew nothing, but apparently he flipped through a National Geographic at the dentist and saw pictures of its people splish-splashin’ in a creek or something. Now Ed Sheeran uses this South American coastal country, home of several of my close chums, to channel a fourth-rate exoticism. Trop-house riddims in 2022?
[4]

Alex Clifton: I can’t tell if I’m getting older and my hearing’s conking out, or if I’m actually supposed to understand any of the words said in this song. It feels like there’s been a trend over the past few years for vocals to be super liquid, which in theory sounds really cool, but actually means that I can’t parse anything other than general phonetic sounds. I recognize that’s also secondary to a dance song like this, but it’s annoying nonetheless; if I go dancing, I want to be able to sing along, not just mumble the tune. At least it sounds okay and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
[4]

Edward Okulicz: Ed Sheeran is so omnipresent in music, like the sound of a drum machine or a guitar. In fact, Ed Sheeran is am instrument, and also the world’s foremost player of this instrument. What I’m trying to get at here is that he might as well just be a particular preset on a machine, and on half of his verse I don’t even recognise him. The song might be better off without him, but there’s nothing offensive about his presence.
[7]

Rodrigo Pasta: A fun presence! The production is too sparse for my liking, in particular within the Afrobeats genre — I tend to prefer a bit more bass to the proceedings. Fireboy’s delivery is fun, albeit maybe a tad too insisting with this constant nagging feeling that, in turn, doesn’t fit Ed Sheeran’s more relaxed verse on the remix. You can tell who has the higher priorities in this song, whose stakes are higher. So when Ed shows up, capping off a mostly pretty alright 2021, he sounds — still surprisingly — right at home within this sound, the way he did in “I Don’t Care” back in 2019. His voice is not as stale or as restrained as others in his modern, “hip” adult contemporary lane; he can find a way around multiple hooks as well as playing with Fireboy’s. That said, “Peru? Nah/Girl, I’d rather go find somewhere quiet”; what did Peru do to you, Ed?!
[7]

Saturday, January 15th, 2022

Adele – Oh My God

We can’t believe it, she’s never scored this high — way to go!


[Video][Website]
[6.58]

Tobi Tella: Compared to the Max Martin fare on 25, this is even clearer pandering to radio and Spotify playlists, something that weirdly makes me like it more. While “Send My Love” was essentially a normal Adele song gift-wrapped in an upbeat package, this is a complete left turn on an album that is up to this point, extremely depressing. “I know that it’s wrong, but I want to have fun” would be an absolute cliche in anyone else’s hands, but it feels scandalous coming from everyone’s favorite Wine Mom. Let Adele Fuck!
[6]

Alex Clifton: I always love hearing Adele in “fun mode” — the woman’s great with ballads, but also when she steps outside of that comfort zone. It’s a good time, although I wish the production didn’t eat her voice into the mix.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: Adele, by all accounts, is a pretty fun person. Adele, on this record, sounds like she’s reading “fun” off sheet music. The production might be to blame; Greg Kurstin does Max Martin doing a Maroon 5 track, and any fun that may be found in that sequence is of the enforced variety.
[5]

Alfred Soto: Anecdata tells me that Adele is more popular with The Kids than many critics suspect. As ubiquitous as bottled water and just as irresistible, she forms part of the unexamined background. They belt “Hello” like a previous generation did Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” When she consciously strives to court this group, though, the result is tuneless strenuosities like “Oh My God.” Who told Greg Kurstin this production deserved distorted chipmunk voices? Or clap-alongs? The more comfortable she feels as the star of the buy-the-CD-at-Target demographic, the surer her touch.
[5]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: The more I’ve listened to 30, the more it’s clear to me that I underrated “Easy on Me” and that it should have been at least a [7] or [8]. While I initially dwelled on the fact that most of the album doesn’t feel sonically adventurous, lately I’ve realized that Adele’s staying power rests in her songwriting. “Oh My God” is another unpretentious track with songwriting gems hidden in plain sight, from declarations of pleasure (“I know that it’s wrong/But I want to have fun”) to confrontations that would ordinarily stay locked in your fantasy (“I don’t have to explain myself to you/I am a grown woman and I do what I want to do”). Less of a track that’d make you say “Oh My God” or “Wow”, and more of a track that’d make you say “Damn.” 
[7]

Ian Mathers: Can someone who’s been paying more attention than I have confirm or deny my suspicion that if you threw all of Adele’s songs to date in a bag, shuffled them, and then pulled them out randomly and arranged them into new albums, you wouldn’t be able to tell much of a difference?
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: This kind of stomping gospel number is not strange with Adele singing — it’s the way the bass lurches below her pealing voice during the chorus, then dribbles around during the pre-chorus. It’s that the claps are clearly programmed but move at each part of the song in a way you would if you were clapping alongside her. It’s that the chanting echoes of her bridge blend together brightly. It’s that this is the first time we’ve seen Adele move away from rigid, starchy and fussy arrangements, and she sounds alive; a fantastic, earthy voice now free to spread its wings.
[10]

Scott Mildenhall: And lo, did Adele benevolently offer a radio-ready second single. The truth that even she feels beholden to the commercial concerns of  mere mortals shouldn’t distract from the fact that “Oh My God” is an off-kilter thing, unassumingly distinct from her prior singles and those around it in the charts. The individual elements aren’t all new — strong vocal front and centre, stomping rhythm, haunting additional voices — but their combination is that bit weirder and warmer. It’s an aqueous ballet of a song; a synchronised swim that engages through its careful construction.
[7]

Andrew Karpan: Greg Kurstin cosplaying Danger Mouse behind the decks on a Black Keys record isn’t very interesting or original, admittedly, but Adele plays her part so straight and with such intention that it practically becomes a trip-hop song by sheer force of will. 
[7]

Samson Savill de Jong: One of those songs that gets better with every listen, which I tend to think is the case with most Adele songs. I still reckon this is solid rather than spectacular, and that the “mm yeah”s in the bridge should either be cut or made more interesting, but solid Adele is still a cut above.
[7]

Rodrigo Pasta: Not the first indicator on 30 — not even the first produced by Greg Kurstin — that this wasn’t gonna be simply another Adele album. After re-establishing her presence in the industry, her stunning voice, and her newfound dilemma of being a mother and a divorcée on the first three or four tracks, Adele suddenly decides to get goofy! She tells Kurstin to treat the track like a leftover from Sia’s unhinged Christmas album, and go even deeper with it! Get some vocal samples to serve as bass, audibly synthetic handclaps, plus some #random chipmunk samples for color, throw it all into a blues rhythm, and bury the organs and synths in order to gate Adele’s vocals like crazy, because they’re bound to be in front of everything! Even the composition is off for her: the pre-chorus is stunningly lazy, and the chorus is mainly two long, strung-out lyrical and melodic sentences looking for a dot or comma. It’s weird hearing Adele like this, trying to be so loose. At one point, during the needlessly tense bridge, she tries to echo her climactic vocal from “Chasing Pavements”, then proceeds to abort when the chorus rolls in, as if telling herself, “No! That’s not who I want to be anymore”. The song sounds just as conflicted as she is, as she seeks some new relationship, wanting not to be let down; after all, she only wants to have fun… right? She’s not too sure of that, and the music displays it with stunning accuracy. Those of us who normally behave in an uptight way, forcedly trying to let loose in a strange, new environment may find some comfort in knowing an untouchable Goddess is right there with us.
[8]

Will Adams: Am I overrating this out of relief that it was the follow-up single and not “Can I Get It”? Possibly. But as far as Adele’s now-staple radio-ready pop trinkets go, “Oh My God” feels more natural. It operates on the familiar — vocal-as-flute squiggles, amiable clap-stomp beat, ersatz gospel — which gives Adele’s proclaiming “I want to have fun” a shade of melancholy. It’s almost as if the song serves as a stepping stone to something more loose, more chaotic, m- oh my God “Can I Get It” is the next track on the album. It’s gonna be the next single isn’t it.
[6]

Friday, January 14th, 2022

Imagine Dragons x JID – Enemy

Us? Sorry, we’re TSJ — you’re looking for these people


[Video][Website]
[4.20]

Nortey Dowuona: I hope everybody else doesn’t want to be my enemy on this one cuz I think it’s good. Will elaborate later.
[9]

Andy Hutchins: We have the Grammys and Netflix making a League of Legends anime to thank for Imagine Dragons, of all entities that have ever produced music, getting an utterly ferocious Kendrick Lamar feature and a JID verse. “Enemy” is your stock Imagine Dragons-y Imagine Dragons Imagine Dragonsing, with the exception of what sounds like a monster stirring behind and beneath the mostly plodding drums and bass. No surprise that JID barely gets his usual rapid-fire flechettes airborne and is still the best thing about this by a mile.
[5]

Madi Ballista: Is this Western anison? JID’s verses shine like diamonds in an otherwise Just Okay rough. 
[4]

Micha Cavaseno: Inexplicably, discussing the function of this as a theme song for a cartoon that is wonderfully gay while promoting the franchise of a company who adore hating women of any kind is too fitting a distraction. It has nothing to do with the craft, which is Imagine Dragons at their peak, taking the flaccid tech-arena vibes of Patrick Stump into a lean, monstrous, ponderous mess. I love the idea of industrial glam-pop without purpose or meaning, this perfect symbol of how gross it is to be a rock band under the vicious gaze of technology. But what really makes me perversely smile is that JID is transparently an echo of ID trying to chase after their early Kendrick collab, shedding any personal characteristics to fulfill that role for a paycheck. When faced with such a monumental tapestry of cynicism and cruelty, it’s all the more perfect.
[5]

Scott Mildenhall: In ten years, Imagine Dragons have released sixteen singles with one-word titles. More impressively, that means they’ve released one song with sixteen different titles. Take a word, shout it, speak-sing it some scaffolding and then chuck some pans at the scaffolding. Yes, that’s specious, reductive and predictable, but you can hardly blame them.
[5]

Ian Mathers: Believe me, I also find it unsettling that my main complaint here is that Imagine Dragons isn’t being weird enough.
[4]

Samson Savill de Jong: As far as I can tell, this is the first time JID has shown up on this site, so I guess this marks his attempt to cross over into a bit more of the mainstream (he appeared on a Dua Lipa album track, if that counts). He manages to retain his personality, and I think he’s the standout part of the song, though that may just be the fan in me willing him to success. His part is in truth too brief to make or break anyone’s feelings on the song, but the fact that he’s the most interesting part of it for me probably says something about the two minutes and 30 seconds he’s not involved in. As for the rest of it, I’m not too much of a fan of the instrumentation during the verses — it’s sparse in a boring way rather than an atmospheric one — and I think the way they’re sung is a bit too repetitive. The chorus doesn’t really work for me the first couple of times, but when it hits after JID’s verse I think it clicks a lot better, probably because they threw everything at it a bit more. I think there’s the genesis of a better song here that is not fully realised.
[4]

Alfred Soto: “Everybody wants to be my enemy” — I wonder why.
[2]

Rodrigo Pasta: It’s a lot, but it’s not the usual things that do it for me. It’s not the poor, synthetic production where no instrument sounds casual, organic, or even pleasing in an artificial way, and more like digital slurry. It’s not Dan Reynolds’ reminder to the world that he can very much sing by elevating his middle range to a falsetto on the transition from the first verse to the pre-chorus. It’s not when he tries to do it again on the second verse, but this time from his middle range to his squeaky high range. It’s not the godawful sense of melody, appalling like I haven’t heard Imagine Dragons sound in years. It’s not the chorus, where the falsetto seems to come at random and takes the non-melodies to a grinding halt, only for the vocals to be pitched down entirely. It’s not the piss verse that JID throws in. It’s not the way his verse gets interrupted mid-sentence for the main melody to stop by unannounced with extra synths to make it even more jolting! Well, in many ways, it is all of that, but the main concern is the fucking narrative. It made sense in 2012, it even made sense in 2017, but we’re in 2022. Imagine Dragons are giants. They’re one of the landmark acts of the 2010s, they will sell out arenas for the rest of their careers and, if this song’s success proves anything, they’ll continue to have hits for a while. So the self-aggrandizing position of “the misunderstood artists vs the rest of the world” got really old, and completely unsustainable. They’ve won the hearts of millions — why still complain about how you can’t win the hearts of a couple thousand music nerds who give you poor reviews that no one will read? No hater out there is “praying for your fall”. We’ve just accepted you will be huge, hope you don’t release shit like this, and maybe eventually will grow some sort of Stockholm syndrome around your existence. “Enemy” works for a generic song to play at the gym while you fantasize about sticking it to your haters (which regular people don’t have), and even then, it’s too sonically shaky to land a punch. Forgive me if I lack empathy — Dan Reynolds’ public struggle with depression is a highly sympathetic one, and they seem like nice guys. Which makes this fronting look even more meaningless and petty. You can’t please everyone; at some point, you gotta move on.
[1]

Alex Clifton: I didn’t WANT to be your enemy, Imagine Dragons, but after hearing this once I have no choice. I’ll see you in the back alley at midnight.
[3]